The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1983, Volume 29, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Three Caravans to Yuma: The Untold Story of Bactrian Camels in Western America. By Harland D. Fowler. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1980. Foreword. Introduction. Maps. Illustrations. Appendices. Acknowledgments. Bibliography. Index. 173 Pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Clifford E. Trafzer of the American Indian Studies Department at San Diego State University. He is a former Curator for the Arizona Historical Society and has authored several books and articles on Arizona and western history including Yuma: Frontier Crossing of the Far Southwest (1980) and The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War (1982).

The use of camels in the mountains, deserts, and plateaus of the American West has long intrigued students of the region’s history and lore. The general public is most familiar with the one-humped dromedary camels used by the United States government in its 1858 survey of the 35th Parallel. Much less is known of the two-humped Bactrian camels used as pack animals in various locations throughout the West. In his volume, Three Caravans to Yuma, Harlan D. Fowler focuses exclusively on the business use of Bactrians as beasts of burden. Chronologically, the author deals with the era between 1860, when the first of these animals arrived in San Francisco, to roughly 1877, when the last ones were used in Arizona. Within this time framework, Fowler discusses the use of the camel caravans to and from the gold diggings in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. The study explores the employment of the camels by individuals (as opposed to governmental agents) who used the animals in private business endeavors.

The strength of the work lies with the biographical orientation which presents the stories of individuals who had sufficient faith in the ungainly beasts to use them in the freighting business. Otto Esche, a German-born merchant from San Francisco, first introduced the Bactrians in 1860 to carry huge quantities of salt, needed for the reduction of silver ore, from the bay area to the high Sierras. Fowler discusses the successes and failures of Esche’s enterprise before tracing the sale of twenty-three of his camels to a British Columbian concern headed by Frank Laumeister. Fowler is at his best analyzing Laumeister’s freighting operation through the Cariboo Country of British Columbia. The author deals with the use of camels in other regions of the far West, always within the context of freighting ventures and private ownership.

Three Caravans to Yuma succeeds in presenting a portion of the “untold story” of the two-humped camels, but it is doubtful that the volume will be ” the last word on the Bactrian experiment.” Indeed, the subject of camel freighting in the West deserves further synthesis and interpretation. This is a difficult, sometimes wordy, study to read and contains numerous and lengthy block quotes. A good portion of the volume deals with frontier characters like Esche, Laumeister, Hi Jolly, and Greek George, but little is provided about the camel caravans through Yuma, except tidbits from the Arizona Sentinel. Overall, the volume presents some new material on the use of camels in the American West, but it is difficult at times to separate the wheat from the chaff. Those individuals interested in camels, freighting, and mining will find this book useful, and since the work was published in limited edition, collectors may wish to add the volume to their libraries.